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International development lacks diversity - and it's holding us back

Diversity guards against 'groupthink' and can better match the right people with the right roles writes Palladium's incoming CEO, Chris Hirst.

There’s an ongoing problem in traditional development and aid. We’ve set up significant barriers to enter this industry, from requiring post-graduate degrees to prioritising volunteer experience for entry level positions.

We limit our workforce out of the gate to those who can afford to pay for education and work for free. We are weakened by the lack of diversity that comes from a range of voices, in particular those from disadvantaged groups which ironically, are often the ones with the most contextual understanding and empathy for the problems the industry tries to solve.

As Palladium’s incoming chief executive officer, I’m acutely aware of the privilege I’ve had throughout my career: I am from an affluent country (Australia) with an above average household income; I am well-educated, white, and male.

I’ve spent the last 20 years working on programs from Papua New Guinea to Zimbabwe to the United Arab Emirates, committed to improving societies, economies, communities, and people’s lives. I’m passionate about what I do, and confident in my ability to create positive impact through Palladium’s work.

However, it is blatantly obvious to me that to tackle the world’s biggest problems, we need more perspectives at the table than my own.

This has been a longstanding problem. In 2013, a government review in Britain called out the development sector’s “appalling record” when it came to employing the country’s own minority population – not to mention reflecting the communities in which we work.

Meanwhile, the need for diversity is being felt in other industries as well. We’re currently seeing a trending push to correct the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley in the United States, where just this year Google still reports that “women make up 30.9% of [their] global workforce, and…2.5% is black”. This lack of diversity has been called the tech industry’s “Achilles’ Heel” and I believe we in the development sector have the same weakness.

Because we lack diversity within development, we are limiting our potential impact. The diversity I am talking about specifically goes beyond gender and race – though without this we won’t get far – and includes diversity of culture, economic opportunity, perspectives and thought.

It’s been reported in Forbes that “Diversity of thought should be our single most powerful competitive advantage in our work groups and organizational teams.” We can make better decisions and discover better innovations when we factor in a wider variety of perspectives.

Going a step further, Deloitte explains that “Each human being has a unique blend of identities, cultures, and experiences that inform how he or she thinks, interprets, negotiates, and accomplishes a task”, and provides a useful list of the benefits of pursuing diversity of thought: it guards against groupthink, can increase the scale of new solutions, and can better match the right people with the right roles.

Diversity of thought looks not just at a degree or a checked demographic box, but realises the potential of each person’s unique perspective and competencies.

Palladium’s chief diversity officer, Rosanna Duncan, has previously spoken about the irony of the aid sector, saying, “It’s strange that in development we create opportunities to work on poverty, inequality and inclusion, but actually the processes we use to attract staff are not inclusive.”

As the incoming CEO of Palladium, a global impact firm with 2,500 people in over 90 countries, I want to use my new position to change our recruiting practices, and lead others in the industry to do the same.

Introducing blind recruitment (e.g., removing identifying characteristics like name and gender from applications) will help us to overcome our unconscious biases.

Our assessments should be competency-based rather than focusing on years of experience or education attained, and we need to widen our applicant pool by leveraging non-traditional sources, including job boards and referrals that go beyond the usual suspects.

Ultimately we need to create space for applicants with non-traditional paths and fewer degrees to be able to enter our industry, bringing their unique perspectives with them. We’re trying to solve the most challenging problems in the world, and we won’t get far unless we bring more voices to the table.

Many of us leading the development sector today have benefitted from the status quo, but we must do what we talk about in development: work ourselves out of a job, solving the deep-rooted issues instead of providing short-term, feel-good solutions, and use our privilege to have a positive impact.

This article was originally published on Thomson Reuters Foundation News